The Republicans, led by George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani and their hard-core neoconservative hit squads, have spent millions on television messages supporting the military surge in Iraq. They mounted a major campaign to demonize MoveOn.org in order to derail the group’s proven ability to raise funds for antiwar messages and Democratic candidates. During the election year, pro-war Republicans are poised to promote staying the course in Iraq while threatening or even instigating a war on Iran. The Democrats will have to respond with more than an echo.

But at this point the leading Democratic contenders are reluctant to say they would pull out all the troops from a war they claim to oppose. In sharp contrast to Republicans, Democrats at least support withdrawing most or all American combat troops on a twelve- to eighteen-month deadline. Asked for exact timelines, however, the top contenders indicate that they would put off the withdrawal of all troops until sometime in their second term. The platform of “out by 2013″ may be a sufficient difference from the Republicans for some, but it won’t satisfy the most committed antiwar voters. Asked about the five-year estimate, Senator Hillary Clinton’s spokesman on Iraq policy, Philippe Reines, expressed surprise, but his formulation of her views did not conflict with the idea of a long US presence: that she wants substantial troop reductions starting immediately, without a deadline for completion, and with a smaller American force left behind dedicated to training Iraqis and counter-terrorism.

“It’s beginning to feel like 2004,” says one Washington insider at the Center for American Progress, a think tank led by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta. CAP issued a key memo on October 31 complaining about a “strategic drift” setting in among security strategists and the Democratic leaders they advise. The schizophrenia consists of wanting to end the war as painlessly as possible while running away from their anti-Vietnam past. In the triangulating phrase of Barack Obama, one can’t be seen as a “Tom Hayden Democrat” on Iraq.

The leading Democratic contenders buy the line of a more hawkish think tank, the Center for a New American Security, a mostly Democratic cast of auditioning future national security advisers. They propose the gradual, multiyear withdrawal of combat troops and an increase in the number of Special Forces and trainers, who are somehow supposed to train the Iraqi army and chase Al Qaeda from Iraq. A similar proposal was made at the beginning of this year by the Iraq Study Group, based on a December 2006 report. The dangerous, even irrational, assumption of this thinking is that a small number of American trainers and Special Forces can accomplish what 160,000 troops have failed to do.

Nevertheless, the proposal has understandable appeal. Bush plans to withdraw 25,000 to 30,000 troops this spring to salvage an army at the breaking point. If the next President withdraws another 75,000 troops in 2009, the peace movement will face the challenge of opposing a war that appears to be slowly ending. Iraq would then likely evolve into either an Algerian- or Salvadoran-style dirty war or tumble toward a South Vietnam-style fiasco with American advisers trapped in the cross-fire. But it would be mostly invisible until the endgame if managed successfully, with American casualties declining in a low-profile war.

Can anything be done to avert this scenario? Actually, yes. The peace movement does have an opportunity to solidify public opinion behind a more rapid withdrawal–regardless of what the national security advisers think.

Peace advocates will likely have the best-funded antiwar message in history during the coming election year. Tens of millions of dollars will be raised for voter education and registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns through the 527 committees, which disseminate election messages independent of partisan candidates. The Democrats defaulted on their opportunity to use these independent committees for a peace message in 2004, when they muted and muddled their antiwar position. But this time they will have to contend with the frustration of millions of antiwar voters, and their nominee will be pledged, in rhetoric at least, to end the war.

Backed by real resources, skilled organizers and volunteers across the electoral battlegrounds of 2008 will be able to identify, register and turn out voters through door-to-door work combined with radio and television spots. Already, former MoveOn political director Tom Matzzie is being entrusted with a $100 million fund for independent expenditures during the 2008 electoral cycle, a significant portion of which will go to antiwar messages. The money will come from antiwar unions like the Service Employees International and big-money donors like investor George Soros and Hollywood producer Steve Bing. Podesta is personally involved in the independent campaign as well, through a 527 entity called Fund for America.

This plan poses enormous challenges. Who will make the decisions, what will be the Iraq/Iran message, who will deliver it and by what means? The independence of the 527 committees is based on an organizational separation from the political parties. But the message will likely be consistent with, if not identical to, the candidates’ message, influenced by the same hawkish consultants. Yet the peace movement has an opening to exert its influence: it can demand a role in the independent campaign as a condition of enlisting its legions of local peace activists. The challenge will be to draft an antiwar formula that unites the peace forces and progressive Democrats rather than one that depresses vast numbers of antiwar voters.

Beyond the issue of message, there’s the question of whether the independent campaign is controlled from the top or is open to the thousands of volunteers already devoted to antiwar efforts in their local communities. Matzzie is a brilliant field organizer in his early 30s, trained in the post-1960s staff-driven methods of groups like USAction. Most of these organizers have little knowledge of Iraq, foreign policy or peaceful alternatives to the “war on terror.” Their backgrounds tend to be in labor or consumer organizing or door-to-door canvassing for donations. Typically, they are results-oriented (number of phone calls made, voters identified, “hits,” etc.) rather than community-oriented. Ideally, Matzzie will map out a battle plan calling for cooperation where local groups already have strong track records (like New Hampshire, Iowa and northern Illinois, to take three examples) and new initiatives in areas lacking an active base. A final question to be finessed is whether the independent campaigns will invest in a long-term local strategy, including simple things like leaving contact lists behind with local groups, or whether they will pull up stakes and vanish on election day.

The peace movement can succeed only by applying people pressure against the pillars of the war policy–public opinion, military recruitment and an ample war budget–through marching, confronting military recruiters and civil disobedience. The pillars have been eroding since 2004. The tactics that are most likely to accelerate the process are greater efforts at persuading the ambivalent voters. This is where the interests of the peace movement converge with Matzzie’s operation.

A massively funded voter-identification and -registration drive and a get-out-the vote campaign have enormous potential to tip not only the presidential election but also the scales of public opinion. Rather than merely pounding away at a simplistic message–Republicans dangerous, Democrats better–such an effort would require, as a foundation, resources to educate voters and involve them in house meetings. The house-meeting approach allows for voter education and participation on a scale that cannot be achieved by hit pieces or TV spots. It is also critical for cultivating grassroots leadership capacity for election day turnout and beyond. Voters may be persuaded by a narrow end-the-war message, especially if Giuliani is the Republican candidate, but they will also need the ability to answer questions about the interconnected issues of Iraq, Iran, energy, healthcare and the threat posed by neoconservatives.

Only in this way will the peace movement succeed in expanding and intensifying antiwar feeling to a degree that will compel the politicians to abandon their six-year timetable for a far shorter one. In the worst-case alternatives, Giuliani and the neocons will roll to a narrow victory despite a platform of promising war, or the centrist Democrats will prevail without a mandate for rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq and negotiations plus containment toward Iran.

The coming war is a political one, to be fought at home. There will be a yearlong showdown that will determine the presidency and the climate of opinion. If the Republicans succeed in electing the next President, the Iraq War will continue and probably expand. If they lose the presidency, they are already positioning themselves to charge the Democrats with “losing” Iraq and ride that theme to a comeback in 2012.

The key dates in this coming domestic war will be:

January 2008 onward: the budget. There will be attempts to limit or reverse Bush’s supplemental demand of $200 billion for a war that has already cost more than $470 billion. CAP recommends a goal of cutting the request in half. Two-thirds of Americans favor a reduction of some kind, and 46 percent favor sharp reductions. It appears that the best that can be hoped for in this battle is to rebuke Bush, reduce funding for the war and make the budget vote so painful that Congress members will never want to cast one again. There is no reason to support $5 billion to $10 billion for the sectarian torturers operating under cover of the Interior Ministry, for example. Already a high-level military commission has called on Congress to scrap the Iraqi police service as hopelessly corrupt, a position reflected in HR 3134 put forward by Representatives Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and Lynne Woolsey. This simple focus on the Frankenstein monster fostered in Baghdad might generate a movement against using taxes for torture and thus begin to unravel the occupation.

January-February 2008: presidential primaries. The Democratic candidates have been at least shopping for the peace vote in the early primaries, if only to differentiate their brands from the others. Voting for Kucinich, Richardson or Gravel is a legitimate choice to support an important voice–but not a nominee. Joe Biden’s proposal for partitioning Iraq is the most dangerous of any of the Democratic candidates’ positions and should be rejected. John Edwards’s proposal is the best of the front-runners’, though it leaves a gaping loophole for “sufficient” US troops to continue fighting terrorists and training the Iraqi police. Barack Obama has been sharpening and improving his position somewhat, defining a more limited role for trainers and counterterrorism. Obama (and Edwards) also have toughened their stand against bombing Iran. That leaves Hillary Clinton struggling in the center, promising she will “end the war” while leaving a scaled-down force to fight Al Qaeda, train the Iraqis, resist Iranian encroachment and demonstrate her awareness that Iraq is “right in the heart of the oil region.” What she means is anyone’s guess, leaving her with little more than an anti-Bush “trust me” platform. These Democratic positions may underestimate the passionate demands of peace voters, potentially driving a significant fraction of those voters into apathy or toward third-party alternatives. All these candidate positions can be drawn out further in the heat of the early primaries by sharp questioning and selective voting by peace activists. The “bird-dogging” of candidates by New Hampshire Peace Action is an example.

April 2008: the Bush deadline for withdrawing 25,000 troops (by not extending their tours of duty). Unless the Administration has bombed Iran, Bush will use this deadline to promote the Nixon-like theme that the war is “winding down.” The Democratic candidate will have to insist that 25,000 is far too small a number of troops. This risks a Republican attack that the Democratic position is “too extreme”; there is also the risk that Democratic candidates would fall into Bush’s trap by calling a 25,000-troop withdrawal a “positive first step.”

Summer 2008: convention protests and platforms. The time is now for advocates and insiders to write and propose platform language that promises to truly end the war, without the usual ambiguity that drives activists to despair. Both conventions will be held in protest-friendly cities, offering an outside strategy to highlight the differences and deficiencies in the two-party debate.

Fall 2008: House and Senate races. It is perhaps here that groups like MoveOn and Progressive Democrats of America can have the greatest effect, by bolstering the numbers of antiwar senators and representatives who favor terminating the war in 2009. Think: Senator Al Franken.

November 2008-January 2009. This will be a test of whether the peace movement will hit the streets and pressure the incoming Administration to promptly end the war or face four more years of deepening confrontation.

If a one-year campaign seems too long, consider Vietnam for perspective. After the McGovern Democrats took over the Democratic Party in 1972 only to lose the presidency, it took three long years before Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policies ended in debacle and in a cutoff of Congressional funding. Along the way, a young Senate staffer named Tom Daschle spearheaded a campaign to block Nixon’s funding for a secret gulag of “tiger cage” torture chambers. Like Baghdad today, Saigon was a US-backed police state, a hideous system abetted by 10,000 American “civilian contractors.” American activists were arrested outside the US Embassy in Saigon for distributing leaflets against the torturers. Another 1 million educational pamphlets were passed out in fall 1972 by local organizers in a hundred cities. Those local groups demanded that candidates sign a peace pledge or face the loss of critical votes.

It all seemed too little, but the pillars of the policy kept crumbling in Vietnam and at home. In May 1973, in response to Indochina and the Watergate impeachment crises, both houses of Congress voted a deadline of August 15 for further funding of American combat forces. Henry Kissinger refused to comply with any deadlines, and his position was defeated on a tie 204-204 House vote that allowed only a last extension of the bombing until that August. The country was so divided that a small, determined faction was able to tip the scales.

We are approaching a similar chasm in public opinion today. The neoconservatives, conservatives and liberal hawks have been discredited for their foolish 2002 belief in a quick and easy invasion of Iraq. A beleaguered neocon minority is pressing to strike Iran and stay the course in Iraq. Democrats, despite their electoral majority, have not proven to be as tenacious about Iraq as the neocons. Nor are progressive activists always as educated and focused for battle as their adversaries. With a majority of Americans wanting and expecting a withdrawal from Iraq, the outcome of 2008 may depend on who has the greater will to win.